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For Essex County lawyers, the excuses for doing pro bono service are drying up. The Essex County Bar Association, long a leader in helping the poor receive legal aid, now has its own pro bono center up and running. It’s called the Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, and its strategy is to offer as many incentives as possible to get lawyers to volunteer. The project, the only one of its kind by a New Jersey bar group, was enhanced with a major incentive last Thursday, as the state supreme court added it to the list of organizations for which 25 hours of work will exempt an attorney from mandatory pro bono in the following year. Essex County Assignment Judge Joseph Falcone pushed for the exemption, lobbying Chief Justice Deborah Poritz for months and helping get the pro bono center off the ground. So far 60 lawyers have signed on, though that figure includes those volunteering to help with training, mentoring, writing amicus briefs or preparing educational materials or forms. A dozen lawyers took case assignments on Feb. 15, following the project’s initial training session on recovering security deposits in landlord-tenant court. Says Joseph LaSala, president of the Legal Services Foundation of Essex County, the county bar affiliate under which the VLJ will operate, “Sure, I wish we had more than 60, but it’s a good start and we are continuing to recruit.” LaSala, a past county bar president and a partner with Morristown’s McElroy, Deutsch & Mulvaney, adds, “This is a project that we’ve been moving toward for quite some time, and I’m very happy that it’s now off the ground.” As for recruiting, the project’s director, Karen Sacks, says that with a new full-time assistant, she will be focusing her efforts on signing up more lawyers, as well as doing more fund-raising. Sacks, a former corporate lawyer from New York, is a part-time director. Housed, at least for now, at the Essex Bar’s headquarters in Newark, VLJ’s initial budget for 2001 comes from a $53,600 grant from the IOLTA Fund of New Jersey, which is being matched by the county bar’s Legal Services Foundation. Additional funding comes from firms who have sent in separate donations earmarked for the center. McCarter & English of Newark, which gave the foundation $25,000 last year, also kicked in $5,000 more for the pro bono project. Roseland’s Lowenstein Sandler, which contributed $18,000 to the foundation for 1999, wrote a separate $5,000 check for the VLJ. Another Newark firm, Gibbons, Del Deo, Dolan, Griffinger & Vecchione, gave the pro bono center $2,500 in startup money, along with $10,000 to the foundation. Those firms have been active in launching the project. McCarter & English partner Susan Feeney, a bar trustee and secretary for the foundation, also serves as vice chair of the task force that developed the center. Lowenstein Sandler partner David Harris chairs the task force, while Gibbons Del Deo partner Larry Lustberg serves on the task force. Name partner Michael Griffinger, a former bar president, sits on the foundation’s board. In addition to the mandatory pro bono exemption, there are other incentives that should help the VLJ to recruit volunteers and to gain financial backing. All training sessions taken by lawyers for the project count toward continuing legal education credits for New Jersey and Pennsylvania, says director Sacks, who adds that the project is working on getting the sessions approved for CLE credits for New York as well. She notes that one of the four training sessions in early 2001, a March 11 trial advocacy class at Seton Hall University School of Law, will be presented by the American Bar Association’s Legal Service Advocacy Training Program. “Because the ABA is accredidated in all states automatically, lawyers who take part will receive CLE credits,” says Sacks. The AOC has recently granted the project an automatic waiver of court costs, meaning that volunteer lawyers on a case won’t have to fill out the so-called IFP (in forma pauperis) form, thus cutting down paperwork. Chief Justice Poritz signed that order Jan. 16. In addition, time and paperwork are saved because the agencies referring cases to the VLJ have all agreed to screen each potential client for eligibility, and each potential case for merit. Those agencies include the Educational Law Center, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Essex/Newark Legal Services Corp. The latest agency to sign on is the Community Health Law Project, which, says Sacks, will use a staff attorney to evaluate each case before making the referral. The training and mentoring to be offered come from experienced lawyers who concentrate in the four areas of law on which the project will initially focus: housing, consumer law, education matters and family law. That means firms can send young lawyers to volunteer, not just to help the poor but to gain valuable training, courtroom experience and transactional experience. In addition to the support from experienced lawyers, the VLJ will also provide volunteer lawyers with research, model forms and pleadings. Sacks says the project is working on securing library privileges, access to Westlaw/LEXIS and the use of litigation services such as court reporters and translaters pro bono or at reduced rates. CAR POOLING AND BRAIN STORMING The idea for the center, according to the county bar’s executive director, Maureen McCully, came from Ruth Lowenkron, a staff lawyer with the Education Law Center who is now on maternity leave. Lowenkron spent most of the 1990s with the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, which runs its own pro bono program in the city. She moved over to the Education Law Center in early 1999 and began car-pooling with Winograd to Newark daily. “We ride to work together because we both live in Manhattan,” says McCully, adding, “No sooner had we started than she says, ‘So, how long is it going to take for us to get a pro bono center’ ” in Essex. Lowenkron confirms that she pressed McCully, “I told her, ‘You got to do this. We got to work together on this.’ ” Lowenkron says the pair brainedstormed, then brought in Torres of Essex/Newark Legal Services over lunch at Francine’s on Washington Street in Newark. Ultimately the trio enlisted others involved in pro bono work, including Lowenstein Sandler partner Harris and the head of Essex/Newark, Felipe Chavana. All agreed as to the need. Essex/Newark Legal Services alone turns away some 1,000 people monthly who qualify for free legal help but can’t be serviced. Moreover, Legal Services Corp. in Washington, D.C., has seen its funding from Congress drop from $600 million in the 1980s down to $275 million in the current federal fiscal year. Legal Services of New Jersey stopped taking LSC funds from Washington several years ago because it objects to the attached restrictions. But perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Essex Bar has gotten the project under way. It already does more than most on the pro bono front. Its foundation underwrites the Legal Aid Association of Essex, a two-lawyer shop located in the county courthouse that assists poor pro se litigants, usually through judicial referals. And it contributes annually to Essex/Newark Legal Services, with county bar members serving as board trustees. Last year, says county bar associate director Lori Ruckstuhl, the bar foundation gave the Legal Aid Association $100,000, with another $45,000 donation going to Essex/Newark. In a letter to all lawyers in Essex, where 20 percent of the bar statewide practices, foundation president LaSala wrote, “It is our obligation to ensure access to justice for everyone and if we do not take action to see that our poor have that access, as professionals, we are all diminished … . This is an opportunity to counter the popular press, to stand up as professionals, and to make a difference in our society.” Says county bar executive director McCully of the project, “I know it will succeed. Karen [Sacks] will make it work. I hope we can be an example.”

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